Is There an Obama Effect That Can Close the Black-White Testing Gap?

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Intriguing results from a new study.

The New York Times is reporting the results of an interesting study in which “researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.”

According to one of the study’s authors, Vanderbilt professor Ray Friedman,

“In the study, tests were administered to a total of 472 participants using questions drawn from Graduate Record Exams (GREs) to assess reading comprehension, analogies and sentence completion. The tests took place at four distinct points over three months during the campaign: two when Obama’s success was less prominent (prior to his acceptance of the nomination and the mid-point between the convention and election day) and two when it garnered the most attention (immediately after his nomination speech and his win of the presidency in November).” The study tested Blacks and Whites at equivalent levels of education, ranging from less than a high-school education to those with Ph Ds.

The Times article acknowledges several caveats: the study has not yet been peer reviewed, nor has it been replicated elsewhere. Therefore, its effects might merely be transitory – not a harbinger of a longer-term change. And the study appears to require dedicated viewing of events like Obama’s convention speech. In other words, Obama’s success does not, by itself, produce the observed effect, even according to the authors’ study (and assuming, of course, that the study measured something real, and was not simply a statistical fluke). Only people paying active attention appeared to have experienced the change in testing.

It will be interesting to see whether there is something larger going on here.

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